America’s newspapers are in crisis, and the consequences may be far more wide-reaching than you know.
Contributing Writer Colby Porter, ’20
As a young child, I frequently woke up at an ungodly hour of the morning to the thwack of the newspaper being thrown against my family’s rickety screen door. Each time, I groaned, thought “Who even cares about the news?” and went back to sleep. The local newspaper, Syracuse’s “Post Standard” would spread across the dining table covering it with features, opinions, comics, and obituaries. This made local news unavoidable in my house, and I soon became an avid consumer. First the comics, then the opinion, then the sports section as I followed Syracuse University basketball, and finally the rest of the paper. I was hooked.
This constant in my life, the daily newspaper coming to my house giving me something to do while eating breakfast became important to me, but for nearly all of my peers, the newspaper was absent. Today, weekday newspaper circulation is estimated by the Pew Research Center at about 28 million. This number represents an enormous decrease from the historical peak of 63 million in 1984. For Sunday newspapers, a similar situation is occurring with circulation at 31 million, down from 62 million in 1990. This significantly lowered circulation means that newspaper revenue is much less than it used to be. This downturn has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of newsroom journalists as economic pressures have forced huge layoffs. Fewer people writing articles means a less diverse media environment with fewer perspectives being offered, reducing both the quality and quantity of news..
Compounding the difficulties being faced by newspapers due to decreasing circulation is the decreased advertising revenue newspapers receive. As fewer people read newspapers, advertisers are willing to pay less for space in the paper. In recent years this has been somewhat mitigated by revenue from online advertisements, but it has not been enough to make up for losses. The result of this decreased revenue is that in some communities where circulation has fallen at a particularly high rate, perhaps even yours, the newspapers have closed down.
The closure of newspaper companies is especially disconcerting because they provide a large amount of the original reporting for other media companies. This means that the decreasing revenue newspapers receive as their circulation drops is an issue for everyone, even those who do not read the newspaper. When newspapers fail, the overall quality of the news ecosystem falls.
These areas which have lost their local newspapers have become known as “news deserts”. Recent years have brought a tremendous increase in the number and size of these news deserts across the country in both rural and urban areas. Currently, according to a study published by the UNC Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media, there are almost 200 counties in the United States who lack any kind of newspaper and 1,449 counties with just one. Also concerningly, the majority of counties in America, more than two thousand, are without a daily paper, leading to an increased reliance on social media or news outlets in other counties for important daily news. The result of this trend of closing newspapers is that approximately half of Americans say the local news outlet they rely on does not cover the community they live in. The issues newspapers face as a whole presents a huge issue because of the profoundly positive effect a robust media has on governance.
There is strong evidence from George Washington and American University professors that having only large newspapers in an election district decreases the amount of coverage of elections, especially for races at the House of Representatives level or below. The decrease of coverage in turn decreases election turnout and other forms of political engagement, damaging the political fabric of local America. In addition, there is evidence that the closure a newspaper has a variety of negative effects on public finance and efficiency. In particular, researchers found that government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and many other costs all increase following a newspaper closure. The reason for this impact newspapers have is because they provide immediate consequences for bad decisions in politics. The fear of negative press coverage pushes government officials to work more efficiently, fairly, and in the public interest. In this way, newspapers are essential to the function of American democracy. They serve as an additional check on governmental power and corruption. The United States’s founders recognized this which is why freedom of the press is enshrined in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. If newspapers, and therefore the press are constantly constrained by financial issues, this fundamental right of freedom of the press is put at risk.
Not only do newspapers place a check on the government, they can also serve as a check on societal abuses by corporations. Research from the University of Calgary showed that there is a quantifiable effect of increased newspaper density on toxic waste emissions. Increased density leads to decreased waste. This is because companies fear negative press coverage and its effects on revenue if they are caught polluting the environment. With their checks on corporations, not only are newspapers saving the American people tax dollars, they may also be saving their lives.
The need to stem the tide of newspaper closures is increasingly apparent, and many people point to online news as the solution. The advantages to online newspapers are numerous. First, online newspapers have a much smaller carbon footprint than printed newspapers which, when factoring in delivery in addition to using an enormous printer and huge amounts of paper, requires a significant energy resources to produce. Additionally, online newspapers have the advantage of being able to publish more types of media content such as videos and podcasts. And most importantly, subscriptions, advertisements, and paywalls on online newspapers can serve as a much needed revenue boost for struggling companies. But at the same time, online news is not a catch-all solution. With the rise of free news, paid subscriptions to online news have not risen at the rate they need to in order to completely offset the decrease in paper subscriptions. Online-only news also presents problems that print newspapers do not experience. For example, in rural areas, many people do not have access to the high-speed broadband internet which makes reading online news and consuming video content a difficult task. Finally, though many online publications have been started in recent years to help negate the effects of closing newspapers, the 500 new online publications created have not been enough to close the news deserts. This is especially true because most of these new online publications are based on metro areas leaving large swaths of rural America uncovered.
Outside of entering online journalism and attempting to increase revenue through traditional streams such as advertising and subscriptions, a number of solutions have been proposed to stem the hemorrhaging of cash from the newspaper industry and create a stable source of revenue. Most publications have simply been adding pay walls to their digital content or creating limited access content, but others have turned to more out-of-the-box methods. Some have experimented with providing services for other smaller publications such as sharing printers and helping each other with web design. This collaboration cuts costs but in many cases either does not save enough money, or is not possible in the first place. Still other publications have turned to hosting large events which function as fundraisers. This model has shown success in certain markets such as Chattanooga, TN where the Chattanooga Times Free Press generated 11% of its revenue from such events. Finally, many publications have added smaller revenue streams such as crowdfunding, selling obituaries, and even including pop-up surveys on their website.
These new or increased sources of revenue are great for increasing financial viability of some news sources, but in markets where people simply do not value their local media as highly, news sources are still struggling immensely to stay afloat. In order to provide funding for coverage in these areas, both the public and the government need to take the funding of local newspapers more seriously. Members of the public need to recognize the value that local news organizations provide for their communities. The efficiency and honesty of their government depends on it. Supporting a local news organization may involve financial support in the form of a subscription or donation as well as attending community events put on my local media. Helping to spread the word about the plight facing newspapers is also an important task. For the government to take action regarding the funding of newspapers requires much more consideration. The separation of the government and the media is vital to maintaining freedom of the press. Still, investigation must be done into the viability of publicly funded local newspapers, perhaps in the public-private partnership style of NPR. Maybe with this type of support from both individuals and the government, the steady decline of newspapers can be reversed, thus helping to preserve a vital piece of American democracy.